I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
A mysterious disaster has stricken the midwestern American city of Bellona, and its aftereffects are disturbing: a city block burns down and is intact a week later; clouds cover the sky for weeks, then part to reveal two moons; a week passes for one person when only a day passes for another. The catastrophe is confined to Bellona, and most of the inhabitants have fled. But others are drawn to the devastated city, among them the Kid, a white/American Indian man who can't remember his own name. The Kid is emblematic of those who live in the new Bellona, who are the young, the poor, the mad, the violent, the outcast--the marginalized.
Dhalgren is many things, but instantly accessible isn't one of them. While most of this big, ambitious, deeply detailed novel is beautifully pellucid, the opening pages will be difficult for some: the novel starts with the second half of an incomplete sentence, in the viewpoint of a man who doesn't know who he is. If you find the early pages rough going, push on; the story soon becomes clear and fascinating. But--fair warning--the central nature of the disaster, of its strange devastations and disruptions, remains a puzzle for many readers, sometimes after several readings.
There is a lot going on in this novel—lots of references to mythology, I think there are deliberate parallels to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a lot of exploration of what it means to be an artist and to live an artistic life.
Our unnamed protagonist begins the adventure when he encounters (and has sex with) a woman who turns into a tree, a dryad. It is she who ensures that he receives the chains that will mark him as special in the place where he is going. He is then picked up by a truck driver, who reminded me of the ferryman Charon who delivered souls to Hades in the Greek underworld. The truck driver stops, without a word, and the main character knows that he must get out and enter the city of Bellona, which has gone through some unnamed calamity and has become a literal Underworld. On his way in, he meets a group of women who are leaving and receives from them an orchid—not the flower, but a bladed weapon worn on the wrist. Between the chains and the orchid, he is marked as a person of consequence in this new, violent world that he is entering.
Most of the people of Bellona go by nicknames or aliases and the protagonist soon receives his—Kid/Kidd/the Kid. Delaney emphasizes that he is in his 30s, but looks like he is 16 or 17 and this appearance of youth is noted in his name. He soon becomes de facto leader of a group of Scorpions, a gang by any other measure. Kid is King Arthur to a dirty, scrofulous bunch of knights of the Round Table, or maybe Hrothgar to a shaggy, stinky bunch of Danes. But this is ironic, as they seem to suffer most from boredom—having nothing of any consequence to actually do. Violence is just a way to alleviate the tedium. (They refer to their house as a nest, perhaps a nod to Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.)
The cover proclaims Dhalgren to be “The major novel of love and terror at the end of time.” I didn’t see it that way—rather there was a lot of sex and neurosis. It takes the sexual banner that Heinlein began championing in his fiction and extends it to the gay and bisexual communities. Kid’s triad with Denny (male) and Lanya (female) is central to the last half of the book—perhaps if King Arthur had crawled into bed with Lancelot and Gwenivere that myth could have had a happier ending? The sex scenes are very much like reading a porno magazine—catering only to the male gaze and often involving coercion or, at the very least, questionable consent.
Like Stephen Daedelus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Kid seems to be a stand-in for Delaney himself in Dhalgren. Wikipedia helpfully let me know that Delaney was ambidextrous and a bisexual who eventually identified himself as gay—characteristics of Kid. But the major issue that Delaney explores through Kid is the nature of the life of an author. Kid writes (or does he copy? It’s never made explicit) poetry and enjoys notoriety in Bellona society for this quirk. When his book of poetry is published, he titles it Brass Orchids (is this a play on the etymological meaning of orchid, which is testicle in Latin?), which one must have to survive the publishing world and/or Bellona. There is an especially interesting scene when, during the launch party for Kid’s book, another poet critiques his work harshly—not a safe course of action when Kid has his orchid and a loyal gang of Scorpions along with him. Lanya convinces him that the other guy is just jealous and that Kid should let go of the criticism rather than beating him senseless. Criticism is a part of being published, she tells him, and something that authors must learn to live with.
I am not a fan of modernist literature—I admit to preferring full sentences and more traditionally structured narrative. There is much more going on in this novel—I’ve only scratched the surface of all the complexities—and I could definitely appreciate Delaney’s talent at folding so many things into this almost-900 page novel. I’m sure that with study, I could write a dissertation on it. However, I didn’t enjoy the reading experience enough to re-read the book. I can appreciate why it is considered a ground-breaking work of science fiction while acknowledging that it will never be a favourite book of mine.